Calling a Crime a Crime

Madelyn Toogood, the mother caught on videotape beating her child in a department store parking lot, will face the full brunt of the criminal justice system.

In the meantime, there has been a minor public backlash against the treatment Toogood has received from both the media and law enforcement.

One has to wonder why a public that can hold some serious grudges against media villains when it wants to would feel any sympathy for a woman who allegedly pounded a defenseless child -- a child who was strapped in a car seat during much of the assault -- repeatedly in the head with her fist.

The answer is that too many people saw too much of themselves in that video. Too many people have either been on the receiving end of such a beating at the hands of parents whom they never considered abusive, or have similarly beat their children without thinking of themselves as abusers. Making excuses for Toogood helps us exonerate ourselves from either villainhood or victimhood, depending on what side of the pounding fist we were on.

Spanking is legal in the United States. Many consider the "right" to spank one's child a cornerstone of parental sovereignty, to be guarded jealously. Determining when spanking becomes abuse is left to the state child protective services agencies, dysfunctional bureaucracies whose rampant incompetence and corruption have been widely documented.

These are the people who are as notorious for removing children from their homes because of a mother's sloppy housekeeping as they are for repeatedly reuniting brutalized children with the monsters who wind up killing them. In fact, a patchwork of states, in the interest of "protecting parents" from the whims of this incompetence, have taken the affirmative step of passing legislation that explicitly gives parents the right to spank their children.

Because of this, the Toogood video plays into the debate over parental rights -- what constitutes child abuse, and how much the state can interfere in private family child-rearing decisions. We don't want the case to set any precedents that would weaken our control over how we discipline our children. But we don't want to have to look at just how ugly the thing we want the right to do is.

Activists seeking to reform the child welfare system fall loosely into two camps: Those who believe lazy, incompetent social workers fail repeatedly to rescue children from abuse, and those who believe overzealous, incompetent social workers wield an elastic definition of abuse to destroy families with trumped-up abuse charges. It's easy to see how complicated all this becomes when the abuse in question is spanking.

Toogood's daughter reportedly suffered no bruises, welts, cuts, burns, scratches, broken bones, or other injuries. So was this a legal spanking or criminal abuse?

Anti-spanking activists argue the entire premise -- that a parent is entitled to inflict some physical force upon his or her child -- is horrifically flawed. Children are the most vulnerable members of our society. They are completely defenseless and completely dependent, the easiest of targets. Why are they the only class of citizen that can be, under certain circumstances, legally assaulted?

If Madelyn Toogood delivered that same beating to anyone other than her own child, her actions would not be subject to debate or interpretation. The fact that the perpetrator gave birth to the victim should not open the door to justification. Society has recognized a wedding license is not a license to assault a spouse. Why don't children deserve the same protection from their parents as their parents have from each another?

The main point of contention among welfare reformers is the "plea bargain" system that allows parents accused of abuse to agree to a state-specified course of counseling, treatment and behavior in return for getting their child back. Activists say this system coerces innocent parents, frantic to retain or regain custody of their child, to "admit" to being abusers, while providing a vehicle for dangerous, abusive parents to keep, or be reunited, with their children.

Many activists feel child abuse cases should be dealt with as the Toogood case is being handled, as a crime, in the criminal courts. Innocent parents would have the due process protections afforded criminal defendants (which they do not have in family court), while the guilty would face penalties commensurate with their crimes (which they do not in family court).

The resistance to handling such instances as criminal cases stems from a belief that child abuse is too complex an issue for the criminal justice system, that the police don't have the expertise to deal with these complex and delicate family situations. But the issue is only complex and delicate if it extends from the premise that there are non-criminal, acceptable forms of child abuse -- that giving birth to a human being gives you some inalienable right to physically assault that person within some sort of culturally acceptable parameters.

If we were to decide as a culture that beating children is an immoral and unacceptable violent crime, as wrong and illegal as beating a spouse or a stranger -- that there is no legitimate reason for an adult to physically assault a child -- than the issue is really not so complex or delicate.